24 Nov. 16

Not all Drain Blockages are Created Equal

Drain back-ups happen. It’s never ideal. But we live in a fallen world, and that’s the reality of it. First, confirm that all water usage stops, to try and avoid any further damage. (Note: sometimes this is out of your control and depends on where the blockage is in the Drainage Waste and Vent system, such as in the city or the apartment below. You may have no control other than knocking on doors and making phone calls). Secondly, confirm there are not any electrical receptacles in the area that could be submerged and/or also confirm breakers aren’t blown in the breaker box (if in a dry area, away from the backup). If breakers are tripped, wait until the plumbing emergency is addressed, before flipping back on. Thirdly, treat back-ups with respect. Backups can carry many nasty things such as bloodborne pathogens, harmful chemicals, and disease.


After isolating the issue, here are some helpful questions and steps you can take to determine the severity of the problem at hand.

  1. What were you doing when the problem occurred? Ex: taking a shower.
  2. Where did the drain back up? Ex: sink, toilet, floor drain.
  3. What time of day was it? Ex: Nighttime (generally little to no use at this time), possibly a running toilet or a load of laundry.
  4. Did running water at a fixture cause water to back up in a lower fixture drain? Ex 1: While running water from my bathroom lavatory, I noticed water backing up into my tub/shower drain. A blockage is somewhere after where the two drains connect. Ex 2: After taking a shower upstairs and doing a load of laundry in the basement, I came down to a wet puddle in the basement laundry room. This means the blockage is beyond the point of connection of the upstairs fixture drains to the basement fixture drains, and more often than not is outside of the home.
  5. What color is the backed-up water? Ex(s): clear, grey, tan, brown, black.
  6. Is there miscellaneous debris in the backup? Ex(s):  food, feces, toilet paper, oil/grease.
  7. Were there ever any gurgle noises coming from drains? Ex: After flushing the toilet, I heard a gurgle from the tub drain.
    1. Note: Gurgles are generally signs of a larger underlying drain problem.
  8. Is there a Backwater Valve?
    1. A backwater valve, Is a one-way valve to help prevent upstairs and city drainage from backing up into lower area.
    2. Generally, it is below grade and connected to a portion of the building drain. It often has a black lid that is on top of a riser which allows access to a plug and inside (beyond the plug) it has a flapper.
    3. Caution: Backwater valves can hold a large amount of water back. Exercise extreme caution before attempting to open.
  9. Are the drains directed to a croc? Where they are pumped up and out from?
    1. Look for a croc.
    2. A sewage pump should have two pipes extending from it: one for discharge, and the other for the vent. Lid will, also, be sealed.
    3. Confirm the pump has power to it.
    4. If the pump has two plugs, attempt to bypass the switch plug and plug in the back plug directly to test the pump.
  10. Is the house or facility on city sewer or septic? Ex. Do you pay a fee for sewer and water? If so, then you generally are on city. If not, then you are probably on septic.


Note: These are ideas of steps that can be taken and most certainly used as a professional.  However, the writer of this article is not responsible for any unfortunate outcomes. Always use common sense.


  1. Confirm what is causing water to back up Is it isolated from or related to other fixtures? Run water from different fixtures to confirm. Note: It is helpful to have a second person for this, to warn you if the backup increases. Also, don’t run a lot of water to do it. Generally, just a little bit of water is needed if it is a complete blockage. A toilet flush is normally about 1.6 gallons these days. So that is potentially 1.6 more gallons of sewage on the floor.
  2. Drain the basin via wet/dry vac, and check the trap. It will either be metal or plastic tubular and can usually be removed without tools, but on some occasions will need a wrench. Be sure to have a small bucket underneath to collect some of the water from the trap. Also, some water may come from the drain as well if it is clogged beyond the trap.
  3. If there are any floor cleanouts (white plug threaded to a fitting that extends or is level with the floor), remove the plug, and if there is water at that point, the blockage is further downstream.



  1. Abuse
    1. Wipes
    2. Foreign objects
    3. Anything other than human waste and toilet paper
  2. Roots
  3. F.O.G. (Fats, Oil, and Grease)
  4. Scale (accumulated rust build up)
  5. Sand
  6. Sags in the drain line
  7. Improper sizing
  8. Venting


Note: Each blockage has its degree of difficulty, and a drain can be opened in numerous ways. In the following post, I will give the details on how this can be accomplished, but more importantly on how to properly clean a drain, not just open it temporarily.


Pro Tip:


Don’t be deceived. Just because the back-up went down, it does not mean your problem is fixed. You very well could still have a lurking drain problem.